By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Utah's Mia Love, a Republican darling who could become the first conservative black woman elected to U.S. Congress, is getting a second, and likely better, chance to make history after narrowly losing to a popular incumbent Democrat in 2012.
Love, 39, is a Mormon mother of three who is upending stereotypes about the state and its predominant faith. She locked up her party's nomination to vie for an open seat in Utah's 4th District at a state convention last month with an overwhelming 78 percent of the vote.
The seat became available when Jim Matheson retired after seven terms in Congress as the heavily conservative state's lone Democrat in Washington. Two years ago, the politically savvy son of a beloved Utah governor beat Love by fewer than 800 votes.
If Love wins this time, she would become an unlikely champion in Washington of staunchly conservative views - limited government, fiscal discipline and state's rights. The daughter of Haitian immigrants is pro-life, pro-gun and holds a concealed weapons permit.
She also supports Utah's effort to reclaim public land from federal agency controls, a hot issue in the U.S. West among conservatives, and has said she would vote against regulations she believes would restrict economic development.
"I love the story of David and Goliath, because in that story, David runs toward Goliath. He ran toward a seemingly impossible challenge," Love said during a testy debate this week with her opponent, Doug Owens, a Democrat and first-time candidate.
"That's the type of confidence we need to have as we take on the Goliaths of our debt, out-of-control spending, Obamacare and that Godzilla we call the federal government," she said.
In November, Love will face Owens in a conservative district created after the 2010 Census that encompasses parts of Democratic-leaning Salt Lake City, then runs south along the Wasatch Front into parts of rural Utah that are typically Republican strongholds.
Her competitor, a 50-year-old attorney, is the son of former Utah U.S. Representative Wayne Owens, also a Democrat.
Despite her 2012 loss, Love has never left the political scene. The former mayor of Saratoga Springs has continued to speak at state and local Republican and community events, and has been tapped as a conservative commentator by numerous conservative national media programs.
Federal Election Commission records show that, as of April 6, Love had amassed a campaign war chest of more than $2 million. The 2012 Love-Matheson contest, with candidates chalking up more than $10 million in spending, was the most expensive House race in Utah's history.
Her exposure and experience should put Love in a stronger position than previously, said Chris Karpowitz, associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
But Love, who was named one of the Republican party's "Young Guns" to watch and given a speaking slot at the 2012 national convention, appears to have toned down some of the Tea Party-style rhetoric, he said.
"She is in a good position in the sense that she has run already, so people know her name," Karpowitz said. "And she seems to be running a campaign that is a little more focused on the kind of voters that Jim Matheson traditionally won."
A spokeswoman for Love did not respond to questions about how the 2014 campaign would differ from her earlier run.
Owens, viewed as the underdog, told Reuters by email that he believes voters have tired of partisan rancor and extreme viewpoints.
"I will beat Mia Love the same way that Jim Matheson did," said Owens, a self-described pragmatist. "By focusing on the issues that are important to Utahns and not on national partisan ideology."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)